Arkansas Department of Education charter panel now fewer, meets today

An Arkansas Department of Education panel responsible since 2013 for initial decisions on charter school applications, renewals and revocations has been overhauled, resulting in a majority of its members coming from outside the agency.

The reconstituted Charter Authorizing Panel — appointed by Arkansas Education Commissioner Johnny Key as authorized by Act 462 of 2017 — meets for the first time at 9:30 a.m. today for an orientation and again Aug. 15-17 to hold hearings and make decisions on 10 pending applications for charter schools seeking to open in the 2018-19 school year.

Four of the proposed schools would be located in the greater Little Rock area, which is home to about a dozen of the state’s two dozen open-enrollment charter school systems. Others would be in Pine Bluff, Bentonville, McGehee and Weiner.

Open-enrollment charter schools are taxpayer-supported schools that operate independently of traditional school districts and are eligible for waivers of some state rules and laws that apply to traditional schools. Conversion charter schools — also subject to review by the Charter Authorizing Panel and eligible for waivers — are operated by traditional districts.

The panel’s decisions on any charter school application, amendment, renewal or revocation are subject to review by the Arkansas Board of Education. The governor-appointed Education Board can accept the panel’s decision or choose to hold its own hearing on a proposal before making a final decision.

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The new seven-member charter panel — to be led by Ivy Pfeffer, the Arkansas Department of Education’s recently appointed deputy commissioner — is made up of three Education Department employees and four people from outside the agency.

At least three of the four new members from outside the agency have some history with charter schools.

They include Naccaman Williams, a former state Board of Education member who not only participated in charter school decisions as a board member but also is a longtime employee of the Walton Family Foundation of Bentonville, one of the nation’s foremost advocates for charter schools.

Williams, a former junior and senior high school math teacher who has a doctorate in education administration from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, is currently the special interest program director for the Walton Family Foundation. As such, he assists in managing grants directed by individual members of the Walton family.

One of the first tasks for Williams and the rest of the new charter panel will be a decision on a charter application that is tied to Walton Family Foundation property. In May, the Arkansas Democrat Gazette reported that one of this year’s charter school applicants, ScholarMade Educational Services Inc., is asking to open a charter school at 2410 S. Battery St., in Little Rock, in a former elementary school building that ScholarMade would lease from a Walton Family Foundation entity.

The state’s new charter panel replaces a nine-member authorizing panel that was made up entirely of the Education Department’s deputy and assistant commissioners and other top-level staff. Those staff members headed the agency’s offices for instruction, school district finance, educator licensure, federal programs, school accountability systems, educational technology and special education.

Pfeffer is the only person who was a member of the past panel to be appointed to the new panel.

Key, the commissioner, noted the new state law when asked about the authorizing panel changes.

“The new law gave us a chance to streamline the operations of the panel, including the panel size,” Key said Monday in an email.

He also said that the extra responsibilities put on Education Department staff as a result of charter school panel work was a reason to turn to people from outside the agency for some relief.

“When you factor in preparation time along with the time involved in the hearings, it was a considerable addition to the workload of the ADE team members,” Key wrote. “I am confident we can move to a seven-person panel without sacrificing the quality of the review process.”

Key said he consulted with the Arkansas Public School Resource Center, a nonprofit organization created to promote high quality education in schools, particularly rural and charter schools, to identify potential panel members.

The center is financially supported in part by the Walton Family Foundation, but also by school district and charter school membership dues and various grants.

Key said he also conferred with Charisse Childers, director of the Arkansas Department of Career Education, for a panel member because charter school applicants often seek waivers of state laws and rules that are connected to career and technical education.

“We looked for non-ADE appointees who would have some level of knowledge about charter schools,” Key said.

Besides Pfeffer, the panel’s new chairman, a former assistant commissioner for teacher effectiveness and licensure, and Williams, who was on the state Education Board from 2004 to 2011, the new panel members are:

• Jeremy Owoh, the state Education Department’s new assistant commissioner for educator effectiveness and a former deputy superintendent in the Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District.

• Mike Hernandez, the newly appointed state superintendent for the Office of Coordinated Support and Service, who is a former superintendent of the Hot Springs School District and a former deputy commissioner at the Education Department.

• Kathi Turner, deputy director for career and technical education at the Arkansas Department of Career Education.

• Former Rep. Mike Wilson, D-Jacksonville, an attorney who advocated for the establishment of charter schools in Jacksonville, chairman of the Arkansas Public School Resource Center’s policy board and who once sought to intervene in a federal lawsuit as a defender of Pulaski County area charter schools.

• Toyce Newton of Crossett, executive director of the Phoenix Youth and Family Services that serves low income youth in southeast Arkansas and who, as a member of the state Board of Education from 2009 to 2016, acted on charter school applications, except when she was chairman and didn’t vote.

Scott Smith, executive director of the Arkansas Public School Resource Center, on Monday said the new panel has a good balance of representatives from the north, central and southern parts of the state and it includes members — Hernandez and Williams — who have experience with charter schools and/or schools of innovation in Louisiana and Florida. He also complimented the inclusion of a panel member who has expertise in career and technical education as many of the district operated conversion charter schools center on enhanced career education programs.

“It’s nice to see someone who has actually had charter experience be on the charter panel,” Smith said. “It’s also nice to see a majority-minority board in place to review a lot of these applications. These are all positive indicators as we move forward.”

The panel has two members who are white, three members who are black and one member who is of Hispanic ethnicity.

Telephone messages to Newton and Williams were not returned Monday afternoon.

Regarding the potential conflicts for Williams in serving on the charter panel while working for the Walton foundation, Smith said that Williams had been a state Education Board member for several years and that if his membership then was not a conflict, then Education Department leaders must be confident that there is not a conflict now.

Wilson, the former lawmaker, said Monday that the panel membership will be a learning experience. But he was involved in the formation of the Lighthouse Academy in Jacksonville several years ago and, more recently, he has become familiar with other charter schools as a result of being a board member for the Arkansas Public School Resource Center.

Members of the Charter Authorizing Panel are not entitled to a salary for their work but their travel expenses will be reimbursed, Kimberly Friedman, a spokesman for the Education Department said.

The panel was first formed by state law in 2013 at which time it was to be comprised of Education Department staff appointed by the commissioner of education.

Smith recalled Monday that the Education Department staff membership on the panel was a compromise at the time between those who wanted the state Board of Education to continue to be the sole authorizer of charter schools and those that wanted a separate, more independent organization to be the authorizer.

Act 462 of 2017 allows for individuals outside the department to serve on the panel. The short law reads: “The Commissioner of Education shall appoint a public charter authorizing panel that may consist of individuals from outside the department as well as professional staff employed at the department to serve at the pleasure of the commissioner.”

The previous panel members were Mark Gotcher, then deputy commissioner; Deborah Coffman,then chief of staff; Stacy Smith, assistant commissioner for learning services; Greg Rogers, assistant commissioner for fiscal and administrative services; Eric Sanders, assistant commissioner for research and technology; Lisa Haley, special education division manager; Annette Barnes, then assistant commissioner for public school accountability; Bobby E. Lester, director of federal programs; and Pfeffer, then an assistant commissioner for teacher effectiveness.

A Section on 08/08/2017

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